Tales of the North
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An excess of weather: 3. The Captain's tale
"You know the rules. No tinkers, beggars, Rangers or any other vagrants after sunset. Now, begone!"
"Aww, Rowlie, come on, the Sun is barely down and we're drenched. Can't you just...?"
The door of the gate lodge slammed shut, but not before Halladan could hear the gatekeeper's mutter of 'Ranger scum'.
Halladan turned away and walked back down the road, trying not to let his disappointment show in his posture. He shook his head at the other Rangers' inquiring looks. "No luck. Rowlie Oakes has the gate."
"We should try the West-gate," Ingold said. "If Bert Hedgeward is on duty there, he may let us in. He's usually more friendly than Rowlie."
"It's hard to be less friendly than Rowlie," Halladan replied, "But we can try the West-gate."
At the West-gate it was Arador who went up to the gate. The other Rangers were standing too far away for Halladan to hear what was said, but it was not long before their captain returned
"No luck here either. It's a shame about the Pony, but we'll not get in tonight."
"Sir, who does he think he is to deny you entry?" Hador asked, gesturing indignantly towards the gate.
"It is his right to not let us in."
"I don't think that is so, sir."
"If it weren't for the Rangers protecting th..."
"If it weren't for the Rangers protecting them in secret...," Galador cut in.
Arador cast a stern glance at his second for the interruption, then returned to Hador. "Let it go. He had every right, and you'll get used to it."
He'd better, Halladan thought, or he'll spend most of his patrols in the Ettenmoors, away from people.
Hador didn't say anything more, but as they rode off, rather than pull up the hood of his cloak against the rain, he kept glaring back over his shoulder towards the village.
"Halt!" Arador called out after about half an hour. "There is a clearing close by where we can rest unseen from the road." Halladan dismounted immediately, as did Ingold and Saeros.
Hador remained on horseback. "Must we stop so near the village?" he asked.
"It's safe enough," Arador said, "But we can set a double watch."
"That's not what I meant, sir," Hador said, now dismounting after all. "It's just that... after we were turned away like that, I don't want to stop so near Bree. I would rather ride on."
Ingold nodded in agreement. Galador looked impatient, and Saeros merely looked cold and uncomfortable. Halladan saw Hador's point, but that kind of misguided pride was something Rangers could not afford. Besides, it was still raining hard, and at least they would have some shelter if they stopped here.
"Maybe we can go on for an hour or so?" Ingold suggested.
"That'll put us right on the edge of the Barrow-downs," Galador said. "I'd rather stay here."
"And I'd rather go on," Ingold said, "Even if it does take us into the Downs. They're not that dire..."
"No," Halladan said. "Going on in this weather is bad enough, but to consider sleeping in the Barrow-downs is madness."
"I want to stay here too." Saeros shivered as he huddled even deeper into his cloak.
"You're just afraid a Barrow-wight will get you," Hador said.
"And what if I am?" Saeros retorted. "If you don't have the sense to..."
"Any rest you'd take in the Barrow-downs would likely be your last," Galador added glumly.
Ingold laughed. "How would you know?"
"That's enough," Arador said. "I have been in the Barrow-downs at night. Have you?"
Ingold's admission that he hadn't was drowned out by Hador and Saeros asking almost in chorus, "Will you tell us about it, Captain?"
"After we finish setting up our camp," Arador agreed.
"I'll take first watch," Ingold muttered as soon as they reached the clearing.
Halladan grimaced. Ingold's offer left him the second watch, but at least he would be able to listen to Arador's tale. Ghost stories should properly be heard around a warm hearth with a pint of ale in hand, but even if it didn't quite make up for missing a night at the Pony, this should still be well worth listening to.
"It was a dark and stormy night," Arador began as soon as they had gathered around their small campfire. "Worse than this, much worse, with wind so hard the rain in your face felt like whips of ice. We were down near Andrath, on the southern edge of the Downs. I had my star for less than a year, so naturally, I was the one our patrol's captain chose to collect firewood."
Hador and Saeros shivered, whether in sympathy over being set the most disliked chores, or at the description of the weather, Halladan did not know. As the Captain continued, he quickly returned his full attention to the story.
"It was dark enough that I could barely see where I was going, and all the wood I found was too damp. So, between being miserably cold and feeling sorry for myself, I went further from the camp than I perhaps should have. I don't know how long it had been before I noticed, but suddenly I realised the wind had slacked and the rain had stopped."
"The sky was cloudless, yet I could see neither Moon nor stars. When I looked around, I noticed the ground glowing with a pale blue light. I was standing at the foot of a treeless hill, and there was a path winding to the top. The light was strongest along the path, and being young and impulsive, I followed it."
"The top of the hill was flat, and at its edge, a single standing stone stood, twice the height of a man, with runes carved into it; and though I could read the letters, I didn't recognise the language. When I tried to touch the stone, it sparked, like amber when you rub it up with a woollen cloth. I went on past the stone, and immediately the air turned chill, and there were wisps of icy fog snaking along the ground."
"I looked back, but I could no longer see the standing stone. I was certain there was someone behind me, yet whenever I turned around, I saw no one. The fog was thickening, and before long I could barely see my hand in front of my eyes. What light there was, had turned a pale, sickly green. Despite the strangeness, I tried to convince myself that one of the other Rangers must have followed me, and was having some fun at my expense. Of course, I knew of the reputation of the Barrow-downs, but I didn't want it to be true, for if it was, I had allowed myself to be led into a trap, like the green recruit I had been not all that long before."
" 'Who is there?' I called out. I might as well give in now; it would be a long time anyway before I lived this down if my fellow Rangers were having me on. 'Show yourself!' "
"There was no answer, except a draft of air and an even stronger sense that someone was behind me, watching, waiting. I turned and moved to draw my sword, but I got no further than closing my hand around the hilt. Outlined only as a darker shape against the grey fog stood a manlike figure. I could make out no features, except his glowing eyes. Oh, curse it... That is not a Ranger. I didn't know whether to swear or to laugh at myself, but my laughter, and my breath, froze in my throat as the wight stepped closer, and a wave of deepest cold swept over me."
"What did you do then, Captain?" Halladan asked as Arador paused.
"Do?" Arador's responding laugh sounded more than a bit strained, as if he found the memory embarrassing even after so many years. "Very little. I didn't run, but I didn't put up much of a fight either."
"Then how did you escape, sir?" Hador spoke up.
"Just a moment. I was coming to that," Arador responded, and took a swig from his waterskin. "Certainly not through my own cleverness or strength," he added ruefully, his expression suggesting that he would have preferred something stronger than water.
"My hand fell back from my sword as he reached out for me. I tried to back away. I must have blacked out briefly, for the next I knew I was on my hands and knees. The wight reached down towards me, and though I tried to move, I was frozen in place."
"Suddenly, the wight turned away and I could move again. Not ten yards away a man stood, youngish, light-haired like the Men of Rohan, armed only with a long dagger of unfamiliar design in his belt. He no more than glanced at me before he advanced on the Barrow-wight. The wight quickly stepped back, and started to fade away into the dark and the fog. Soon there was no trace of his presence left. Even the piercing cold had gone."
"I waited what the stranger would do. He stood silent, unmoving, as if listening, or trying to sense something, but as soon as I moved, he turned to face me. I spoke to thank him for my delivery from the wight, and he let me have my say, then pointed towards the path. Though he said not a word, the urgency in his gesture was clear."
"The standing stone was visible again, I could feel some faint spatters of rain, and the green glow was fading. Soon it would be completely dark. Before I followed the path past the stone, I turned my head to thank the stranger one last time. I no longer could see him, and suddenly afraid as I had not been even when faced with the wight, I ran. All I could think was that I had to get down, away from there..."
"It was now fully dark and as soon as I reached the bottom of the hill, the full strength of the weather hit me again. I still ran, and kept on running until, inevitably, I tripped. Luckily, I fell in a puddle, and the only injury I did myself was to my pride."
Arador paused to take another swig of water. "Besides covering me in mud, the fall also brought me to my senses again. As I lay there, the Moon briefly came through the clouds and I realised I was very near the Rangers' camp. I should go back, even if I had no firewood. I was already late, and I was drenched, covered in mud. It would likely be months, if not years, before I would hear the last of it."
So that was where the jokes about sending the Captain for firewood came from, Halladan thought. He didn't quite have the heart to remind Arador that these jokes were still told, even after so long.
"What did you say when you returned, sir?" Hador asked.
"As I didn't think there was any immediate danger, I only said that I had lost my way in the dark and that I thought I might have seen a wight. Anything more than that would have seemed like a fancy excuse for my failing at such a simple task. I'm fairly certain my captain didn't believe that was all there was to my tale, but he didn't ask further at the time, and he was killed in an Orc raid not long after."
"And afterwards?" Galador asked. "Did you ever find out more?"
Arador gazed long into the low flames of their fire, before he looked up and answered. "Yes, I did. For a long time, I put it out of my mind, but years later, I happened to be travelling from Tharbad to Bree, and as I wasn't in a hurry, I took time to investigate."
"Though I had only been there in the dark, I easily found the path I had taken. Yet when I followed it, I did not find the place I remembered. There was a hill, but it was much lower, and though there was a path up it, it faded out in a mess of bramble bushes about halfway up. As it was still early in the day, and I had time on hand, I cut through the brambles, and beyond, I found traces of an old landslide. The hill had been higher once. I started to dig down into the earth, curious what I might find."
"Soon I struck the edge of a large slab of cracked and damaged rock. I tried to uncover it fully, but it was too large to do so by myself. Perhaps it was the standing stone I had seen, but if it was, there were only faded and broken lines left of the carvings I had seen so clearly."
"With at least that much revealed, I was ready to continue on my way when on an impulse I started digging again about a yard to the side. At first, I found nothing, but then I noticed a narrow strip of ground with reddish stains, like flecks of rusty iron. I dug further at the far end, and soon my fingers brushed a clump of sandy earth. I took it out, and as I carefully cleared the sand away, I realised that it held a metal object. Once I cleared away the last of the sand, I found myself holding the hilt of a dagger."
"I gasped as I looked at it. I recognised it. This was the hilt of the dagger the stranger who chased off the Barrow-wight had carried. It was simply-made, though with some care, and the style of the workmanship was indeed unfamiliar. The reddish marks in the earth must have been all that was left of the blade."
"While I wasn't in a hurry, there wasn't time to visit Rivendell to look for answers either. I carefully wrapped up the ancient bit of metal and put it in my pack. And there it stayed for several months, until I happened to visit Rivendell to consult with Master Elrond on some other matter."
"After I told him how and where I found the hilt, he studied it for a long time. Finally, he looked at me again. 'As you must have seen already, this hilt is not of either Dúnedain or Elvish make. The pattern of the wire around it looks Dwarvish, but the hilt itself was not made by Dwarves.' "
" 'Then, who...?' I asked. From Elrond's look I knew there was a lesson forthcoming. 'The lands around Bree and the Barrow-downs are among the oldest lands inhabited by Men in the West. Long years before the Dúnedain of Cardolan laid their dead to rest there, there were already barrows in Tyrn Gorthad, made by the forefathers of the Edain.' I had already known that the stranger had been a ghost too, but I had not thought further back than Cardolan or Arnor."
"Then that dagger was older than Master Elrond!" Saeros blurted out.
"Yes," Arador nodded. "And the hill that I climbed in the dark collapsed early in the Second Age."
"Where is the hilt now?" Halladan asked.
"In Rivendell, with other relics of the First Age," Arador said.
"Sir, there is one thing I don't understand," Saeros said. "Why did the ghost help you? Aren't all ghosts evil because they linger here when they should have...?"
Arador sighed. "I did wonder about that," he said, "But there are many reasons for a spirit to linger; some may believe they have unfinished business among the living, or they might be bound by a spell, and many reasons other than their own malevolence."
There were no further questions, and soon after Arador had finished his tale, the Rangers slept.
The next morning, as they rode past the first of the barrows, the sun peeked through the clouds. With disappearing hills and ancient ghosts on his mind, the landscape seemed less than solid, and despite the brightness of the day, Halladan couldn't help a shudder.
"Captain," he asked, wondering suddenly. "Is the ghost that helped you still there?"
"No," Arador said. "I went back with the sons of Elrond, and they said he was gone. It was likely that my taking the dagger broke whatever enchantment kept him there. I hope he found rest. He didn't have to help me, and I surely would have perished without his help."
- - -
"It is said that the mounds of Tyrn Gorthad, as the Barrowdowns were called of old, are very ancient, and that many were built in the days of the old world of the First Age by the forefathers of the Edain, before they crossed the Blue Mountains into Beleriand, of which Lindon is all that now remains."
RotK, Appendix A, I, iii, Eriador, Arnor, and the Heirs of Isildur
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